Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Profane Racer: The Cavendish Autobiography

When Christian Vande Velde gave me a slight rebuke for mentioning I was reading Mark Cavendish's autobiography "Boy Racer," I thought it was just a jesting remark for bothering to read about the chief rival of his team's ace sprinter Tyler Farrar. I wasn't deep enough into the book at the time to know that Cavendish had some harsh and profane, and quite incendiary, words directed at the Garmin team, that certainly would have irked Christian.

The book follows the 2008 Tour de France stage by stage with flashbacks covering Cavendish's entire career growing up on the Isle of Mann to becoming the sport's most dominant sprinter who might just become its greatest ever. There is also commentary on the 2009 season.

Cavendish catapulted to world prominence by winning four stages in the 2008 Tour, a significant enough achievement for the "boy" racer to make the front page of the "New York Times" after his fourth stage win. Only two other cyclists, he says, have had such an honor--Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong.

Besides his explosive sprint, Cavendish is well known for his fiery temperament and brutally frank comments. His writing is no less restrained than his mouth. He names Italian Gilippo Pozzato as his least favorite rider in the peloton. He labels Colombian Mauricio Soler as a "crash magnet." He recounts shouting matches with his teammate and rival sprinter Andre Greipel.

But his greatest ire is directed at the Garmin team. He was greatly peeved that they pushed the pace on stage seven of the '08 Tour over five categorized climbs through the Massif Central forcing him to lose contact with the peloton and making him suffer miserably trying to finish within the time limit. He called it the hardest day he ever experienced on a bike. He didn't think it made tactical sense other than to try to eliminate him from the race. "As far as I could see," he writes, "Our team rode just to win races, while they (Garmin) rode for that and to fuck other people up."

One hundred and fifty pages later he makes a similar accusation, upset that Garmin closed the gap on his teammate George Hincapie, preventing him from assuming the yellow jersey on stage 14 of the 2009 Tour, calling their efforts "shameful," and adding, "yet again, they seemed more preoccupied with fucking up other teams than with achieving something themselves."

Proving that he really has it in for Garmin, more than any other team or individual, he blames a crash he suffered on the tenth stage of the 2008 Tour on a Garmin water bottle. It caused him to lose contact with the peloton. He was alone well off the back, ushered along by his teammate Bernie Eisel. It took every ounce of his energy to get over the Tourmalet and the final climb without being eliminated. Just after he crossed the finish line he spotted Garmin rider David Millar and lashed out, "Your team is a fucking bunch of menaces."

He pays some respect, though, to Garmin's Farrar, calling him "a good sprinter and a good bloke," but then proceeds to criticize him for trying to ride shoulder to shoulder with him in the sprints rather than riding in his draft and then coming around him.

The book may hold the record for the most profanity in a cycling biography. Towards the end he writes, "I hope you'll grant me two final lapses into profanity," but then five pages later he lapses twice more and then twice more on the following page. And that's not the end of it. There is nearly one per page in the lengthy epilogue.

Such frankness makes for a rollicking good read. He divulges a wide assortment of insider knowledge. He explains he wears long white socks so his teammates can spot him easier as they are riding furiously with heads down leading him out in the sprint. He admits to tinkering with his cyclometer before going out on a training ride so his manager will think he's ridden more miles than he has.

He narrates with telling detail his many wins. He won one sprint in The Tour on wheels other than what he prefers as his team mechanic messed up. He doesn't name the mechanic, but he isn't so sparing of teammates who he feels let him down. He castigates Kim Kirchener for not giving his all, costing him the green jersey in the 2008 Tour.

Not winning the green jersey for the best sprinter pained him greatly and caused him no end of tears. He is quick to cry and not bashful mentioning it. He admits to "weeping into my Oakleys three times" during the stage the day after he was penalized for cutting off rival Thor Hushovd in the 2008 Tour. The day before he "burst into tears" on the massage table when he was informed of the disqualification. He also cried "all the way to the finish line" on stage one of the 2007 Tour, his first, when he crashed 25 miles from the finish and had to cycle in alone. He couldn't blame Garmin for that one though.

He also gushes tears of joy. One of the photos in the book shows him wet-faced after his dramatic win in the 2009 Milan-San Remo race. He also speaks of tears just before he proposed to his girl friend Melissa. After he learns his parents are to divorce he "cries his eyes out."

He also sobbed on his bed back in his dorm room after not medaling at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the only member of the English track team not to medal. He was teamed up with Bradley Wiggins in the Madison event. Wiggins had already won a couple of medals in other events and wasn't as motivated as Cavendish wished he might have been. Wiggins was also a bit fatigued, but Cavendish doesn't accept that as an excuse. "Like a lot of supremely gifted athletes," Cavendish writes, "Brad perhaps hadn't learned to suffer like I had."

Cavendish dares to question another fellow English rider's will, Ed Clancy, who he trained with in his early years with the British Cycling Academy. Clancy has yet to achieve the success that was expected of him. "Ed thinks he can suffer, but I don't think he can," Cavendish comments.

Another of the book's charms is its unabashed use of English idioms foreign to these shores. He refers to his teammates and friends as "mates," "blokes," "lads" and "scallies." He confesses to having been a "scally" himself--"an urban teen-aged ne'er do well." The word "piss" is used in reference to activities other than the voiding of wastes. "I should have been out on the piss with everyone else," he wrote while at the Beijing Olympics. He mentions "taking the piss out of" and "we piss ourselves laughing" and "mischief and piss-taking."

The writing is laden with words and expressions that confirm Cavendish has lost none of his Englishness despite riding for an American team--"bollocks," "suss," "wonker," "gobsmacked," "fobbed," "scapper," "narky," "knackered," "hen weekend," "about as inviting as cold porridge" and "know sod all." Nor does he back off from metaphors that would have meaning only to the English--"the equivalent of starting a football career with Bumley" and "like an eighteen-year old striker for Manchester United telling Sir Alex Ferguson the 4-4-2 was the wrong formation."

As incisive and intelligent as the book is, it is not without factual blunders. It's not easy, it seems, to write a cycling book without getting something wrong about the sport's history. He wrote that the Tourmalet was the first Pyreneean climb ever visited by The Tour. That's not true. The Tourmalet was included in the stage when The Race first visited the Pyrenees in 1910, but it was preceded by climbs over the Peyresourde and the Aspin. He also says the 2009 team time trial was around Monaco, when it was Montpelier.

The December issue of the indispensable English monthly "Cycle Sport" had a superb feature "The Best Fifty Cycling Books of All Time." "Boy Racer" came in at number seventeen. That may be a little high, but it certainly deserved to be on the list.

The list was heavily slanted towards books written in English, largely ignoring many of the outstanding books written in French, Dutch and Italian, only a few of which have been translated to English. Six on the list were devoted to Lance. His not very race savvy, profane-free autobiography, "Its Not About the Bike," was ranked number 28. At number four was Dan Coyle's immeasurably more worthwhile Lance biography "Lance Armstrong's War."

Topping the list was "Wide-Eyed and Legless, Inside the Tour de France" by Jeff Connor written in 1988 about an extremely over-matched English team riding the 1987 Tour. It was one of a dozen books on the list focused on The Tour. Nearly half of the books were biographies. Two were on Tommy Simpson, Cavendish's rival as the greatest English cyclist ever. There will no doubt be many more Cavenidsh biographies in the years to come, and hopefully more written by him.